Remembering 9/11 Twenty Years Later

September 11, 2001.  Like many, I have a clear memory of that fateful morning. I was living in Berkeley, up early with the news on. I watched the replays of what I first thought was a crash, and then came to realize was an attack. Horrified, I gathered family around, as if being together would make us safer in a newly dangerous world.

At Wesleyan at the time, and all around the country, there was shock. How could this happen? Then came years of mourning, commemoration and efforts to remember the thousands who died at their desks, in elevators, on stairs, some heading up heroically to save as many people as possible. The photographs of those stunned first responders still make me shudder. Such sadness. We do our best to remember them.

We also remember the series of wars that were unleashed by the attacks of 9/11. The lies that led to the Iraq war, the hopes that many had of defending freedom, the slowly unfolding debacle in Afghanistan…torture, errant drone strikes, deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last 20 years. What would it mean to do our best to remember all those victims?

For me, this sad anniversary is an occasion for piety, and I take some consolation in communal remembrance. Going forward, I’d like to think that by discovering ways of joining with others to provide security without making war, we are doing our best to remember all the victims of 9/11 and its aftermath.

Photography, Memory, New York

Over the years I’ve occasionally given a seminar called Photography and Representation. We examine how photography has affected how we remember and forget, how we tell the truth, how we lie and how we make art. I started teaching it when I worked at the Getty Research Institute, and we were able to use its extraordinary collection to shed light on how great photographers have changed our relationship to the past and to the present.

Historical events can change one’s relationship to history; so can personal traumas. These came together for many people in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Those who were in New York that day, and those connected to the people present were marked — in many cases indelibly. In the wake of the attacks a photographic archive began to form, and it was exhibited and then published under the title here is new york. Everyone was invited to submit their pictures — from little kids and tourists with disposable cameras to accomplished professionals. It was labeled a “democracy of photographs.” This is from the Introduction to the massive volume:

What was captured by these photographs — captured with every conceivable kind of apparatus, from Leicas and digital Nikons to homemade pinhole cameras and little plastic gizmos that schoolchildren wear on their wrists — is truly astonishing: not only grief, and shock, and courage, but a beauty that is at once infernal and profoundly uplifting. The pictures speak both to the horror of what happened on 9.11 (and is still happening), and to the way it can and must be countered by us all. They speak not with one voice, but with one purpose, saying that to make sense of this terrifying new phase in our history we must break down the barriers that divide us.

Charles H. Traub and Aaron Traub recently gave Wesleyan a large selection of these images, in honor of Professor David Schorr and David Rhodes ’68, President of the School for the Visual Arts in New York. The collection is one of only a few deposited with universities or museums, Wesleyan’s Curator of the Davison Art Center Clare Rogan told me.  This is an important addition to our photography holdings, and I look forward to working with the pictures alongside students next time I teach that seminar.

Photographs have grown increasingly ubiquitous, so much so that it is difficult to determine which images will retain meaning over time. But history and trauma have elevated some photographs beyond the ordinary such that they become scars of memory — marking their own times and connecting to those of future beholders. Such is the case with the collection here is new york.


Commemoration Without Agenda

At Wesleyan this afternoon (Friday, September 9) from 2:30-3:30 there will be a prayer vigil in Memorial Chapel to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001.

The following is cross-posted from the HuffingtonPost.

As the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon approaches, hundreds of journalists, commentators, writers and artists are telling us how to mark this occasion. On my left, Noam Chomsky is there to remind us of what he always knows before any events have to happen: that U.S. imperialism is responsible for everything evil that happens in the world. On my right, John Yoo is there to remind us that the terrorist attacks are evidence that the United States is justified in doing anything whatsoever to destroy those who might possibly be its enemies – even if we destroy our political values in the process. The commemoration of the awful killings is being used by those with political agendas to advance their various causes. That’s what happens with public memory.

There are others who will argue that we still must get the facts straight about the factors that led up to the events of September 11, 2001. They want more research about the causes of the rage that fueled the Al Qaeda operatives, and a deeper understanding of the intelligence failures that made Americans vulnerable to suicidal terrorists. On this 9/11 anniversary, they want to make sure what really happened before and after the planes pierced those crystal clear skies on that awful morning.

As I argue in Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past (coming out this fall), these are two of the important ways that we connect to the past – how we try to turn memory into history. The first is pragmatic: let’s use the events in the past (even awful, traumatic ones) to learn lessons for the future. We can make sense of the painful past by making it a useable past. The second connection to the past is empirical: let’s make sure we have an accurate representation of what really happened. The first attitude gives us agendas; the second gives us research task forces.

There is a third way of relating to the past that makes no particular claims for the future. I’ve called this “piety,” an acknowledgement of the existence of the painful past, and of the capacity of what-has-been to make a claim on us. By using the word “piety” I do not mean to evoke some necessarily transcendent or religious aspect to one’s connection to the past. I do mean to evoke recognition that we sometimes strive to relate to our memories and histories in ways that are not reducible to a quest for using them well or getting them right. We connect to our memories just because they deserve our caring attention. Piety doesn’t have to do anything; it is an attitude of respect and care, even of reverence.

As the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 nears, I think back to my shock and horror as I watched the television news. I feel my way back to the concerns that I had for my family, my students, my country. I wanted to gather with my community to simply be together as we absorbed the shocking loss of life and the experience of horrific vulnerability. Yet, even moments after the planes hit, some began making political speeches about how to confront or support our public officials. It was time, they said, to engage in political or military battle. And even in those moments some were calling for research into what really happened. Conspiracy theorists were off and running.

As we commemorate the trauma of those days, as we remember the loss of life, the heroism of so many on the scene, and the solidarity of sorrow and anger that welled up across the country, let us remember — but not only in the register of the pragmatic and the empirical. Sure, there are political and military issues that still demand our attention and struggle. Sure, there are still open historical questions about the facts and their interrelationship. We will continue to engage in those pragmatic and empirical dimensions.

But on this 10th anniversary of 9/11 let us also simply acknowledge the claim that our painful memories still have on us. Let us recognize with piety that we still carry the traces of those traumatic events with us, and that we acknowledge their importance to us without trying to use them.

Let us commemorate, if only for a few moments, without agenda.